Perfect your Writing Tone

The tone of your writing is perhaps the clearest message sent to the reader about your ability to express yourself.

The tone will decide if you come across as mature, educated and dedicated; or immature, ill-prepared and not committed or passionate about your course.

UCAS analysed 300,000 students’ personal statements in 2018 and found all university applicants – from future accountants to fine art scholars – use a predictable blend of career and passion-related words to promote their suitability for the subject. You might have all the passion in the world for your chosen subject and career but you might want to limit your use of the word ‘passion’ once you realise that your peers are doing exactly the same.

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The above shows the majority of applicants use the word passion or a variant of it at least once in their personal statement. The Y axis shows no subject group uses it less than 40% of the time and English applicants use it almost 80% of the time! As you can imagine, after reading a few thousand people state they have a passion for a subject it will begin to lose its appeal.

While there may be a few words or phrases that you may want to avoid using, it is your tone and writing style which will have the greatest impact on the reader. 

This is the only piece of actual work that you submit to the UCAS system and you should be seen to be making your best effort to present yourself well. While a light hearted tone can work as well as a more serious one, you want to avoid slipping into informal language or too casual a style. Never try to use humour, chances are the admissions team may have run out of it by the time they read your work.

Casual conversation style will place you at the bottom of the pile as it damages the reader’s assumptions about you. Have the admissions team just read that you were captain of the school debating team, constantly winning tournaments? Even with good spelling and grammar, writing in a childish, stilted way will distract the reader and diminish any experiences you may be describing.

This in fact almost negates your accomplishments as the reader tries to rationalise the difference between your poor written language skills and the achievements you have put down on paper.


The Golden Rule: Never Use Slang

This includes most informal language. This can be a hidden danger for some people as many words which are no longer technically slang have only reached common language because of their frequency of use.

A good example of this is one we have seen crop up in healthcare related applications, the use of the words kids vs. children when describing for example work done in a hospital or charity. It can seem obvious not to use the following wording but the phrase ‘unwell kids in the paediatric ward’ rather than saying ‘children’ or ‘patients’ has been seen before.

Below we have listed some formal speech rules which can be used to guide you if you are not used to writing in this way. It is important to keep the big picture in mind at all times, and that is especially true here. 

This essay is painting the picture of you that you want to present to admissions tutors. You of course want to appear educated and driven, but blindly applying the rules of formal speech means you run the risk of coming across dry and robotic. Keep some balance to your speech!


Forms of Writing


I’d taken part in…

I had taken part in…

The majority of your sentences should be without contractions to avoid a conversational style developing. Leave some in for brevity.



The work experience was very interesting, lot’s to do including…

The work experience was very interesting, there was a lot to do including…

Similar to contraction, ellipsis again makes your work seem conversational.


Word Origin

Anglo-Saxon words tend to be shorter and more conversational, whilst Greek and Latin origin words are longer and more formal.

Word origin should be considered but not overused. Consider the two sentences below and think about what combination of styles would work best.

As a team, we endeavoured to commence the competition…

As a team, we tried to start the competition…



We may not think of politeness when writing an essay, surely no one would be rude? However when it comes to writing we need to think of it in a different light.

There are two forms of politeness, firstly showing that you respect and value your reader, and  secondly changing your tone and what you write so as not to appear too forceful or arrogant.

Respect is shown by using language appropriate for your audience. An easy example being not using swear words in your application or using Mr/Ms/Mrs instead of simply a last name. 

Changing the modal verb used (look these up if you’ve forgotten what they are) can soften language or make it more direct. Being constantly direct is not a bad idea on its own, but if it makes your statement come across as either overly arrogant or repetitive it might good to change your wording.

Can I demonstrate my highest achievement by… (neutral)

May I demonstrate my highest achievement by… (formal)

Might I demonstrate my highest achievement by way of… (very formal)

I can demonstrate my highest achievement by…(forceful)

My highest achievement is obviously demonstrated by…(very forceful)


Saving Space with the Active vs. Passive voice

Doesn’t formal speech use up precious character spaces? It does, however it is worth the extra characters to come across professional. Again it is about balancing how you present yourself versus the amount of information you are able to bring across to the reader.

The active voice is used due to its immediate and confident tone. On occasion, as seen in the example below, it sometimes makes the sentence a word or two shorter in comparison to the same sentence written using the passive voice.

Einstein developed the Theory of Relativity in 1915. 8 words. Active voice.

The Theory of Relativity was developed in 1915 by Einstein. 10 words. Passive voice.

A two word difference can really build up over the course of a 4000 character personal statement. If for every 20-30 words you have written there are 2 passive words that don’t need to be there, changing everything into the active voice could give you room for another 400 characters, roughly two sentences!

That is enough extra space to make your conclusion even stronger or add more detail to that all important work experience placement.


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